5 Creative Writing Unit Ideas

I've been hearing from a lot of teachers lately about getting thrown into teaching creative writing electives they weren't expecting. Been there. I was excited if a bit overwhelmed the year I took over my friend's "Creative Literature" course after she took a job in Northern California.

A creative writing course seems to flow out before you to the infinite horizon, am I right? There are so many different things you could do, and it's not easy to figure out a logical flow and pin down the  assignments.

That's why in this post I'm pulling together a list of some of the best creative writing units I've done, dreamed of, or participated in as a student. If I was writing a brand new course right now, I would use every one of these units.

The Multigenre Autobiography (for the beginning of the year)

I once assigned my American literature juniors an identity project. After reading a variety of pieces by American authors about their lives and experiences, my students produced a portfolio of works in different genres that shed light on their own identity. The results amazed me.

If I was crafting this same project for a creative writing course, I would ask students to create a narrative of their lives using three or four genres linked together. Perhaps they would begin with memoir about their early childhood, move into a video of their own performance poetry about early childhood, transition into a travel piece representative of their teenage years and finish with a fictional story about their future. I would detail a big list of options for the different genres, examine a range of autobiographical pieces that reflected at least some of those genres, and hit the ground running.

Enter a Contest (for the early fall)

Writing contests are everywhere. I recently rounded up dozens for a post over at We Are Teachers. Choose one you think your students will enjoy, whether it's the 10 Minute Play Contest, Engineer Girl, The Ocean Awareness Contest, The Bennington Young Writer's Awards or one of the other wonderful options.

Better yet, share the whole list with your class and let everyone choose the contest they feel more drawn towards. By introducing the project and completing the work early in the year, you give them more options because the deadlines won't yet have passed.

Maker Unit (for the winter)

Angela Stockman's recent book, Make Writing, shows a classroom world in which students are inspired by what they make to take their writing in totally fresh, creative directions. I LOVE this idea.

Spend some of the drearier months making your classroom into a maker space with your students, gathering materials and creating areas where they can design characters in paint before ink, settings out of cardboard and wire before words, conflicts in cartoons across chalkboards before spinning them out across pages. Design a maker unit, in which students create elements of their fiction before they write, and see what magic unfolds. Learn more about making writing in this podcast episode I did with Angela.

One Act Play Festival (for the early spring)

As the weather begins to warm, get students going on writing one act plays in groups. If you want to pair the project with a mentor text, choose a play to read first and then have students brainstorm a list of themes from that play that they can incorporate into their own.

Give them time to write and rehearse together (head outside if you can!). Then decide as a class when and where to hold your own one act play festival and invite guests. Consider letting students vote for several award-winning plays and hold your own awards ceremony when the performances conclude.

Blogging (for the end of the year)

As the year comes to a close, keep students' attention by inviting them to experiment with the genre of creative nonfiction through blogging. Give them a chance to choose a topic they're truly interested in and begin experimenting with how to write for a real audience. You can assign profile posts, list posts, multimedia posts, opinion posts, top 10s, and more to guide them in writing the kinds of creative nonfiction they see constantly online. Read all about how to get going and discover the best free blogging platforms in this post, A Beginner's Guide to Student Blogging. 
Of course there are dozens more wonderful possibilities for creative writing units. You could write screenplays, memoirs, graphic novels, children's books, nursery rhymes, fairy tales. You could explore writing scifi, fantasy, mystery, YA, and more. You could dive into poetry with spoken word, slam, and blackout poetry. The world is your oyster when it comes to a creative writing course, but these are just five fun possibilities to get you started.

Want to share your favorite creative writing units and get inspired by those of other fabulous teachers? Hop on over into my free Facebook group, Creative High School English and join the conversation.


Creative Secondary Classroom Decor

Secondary classroom décor can be a touchy subject. It’s easy to consider it the domain of primary educators, or feel afraid of being judged by students or other teachers for trying to be cute or not treating students as near-adults. 

In this podcast episode I’ll be sharing ideas for decorating your classroom in fun creative ways that honor the age of your students and your own life and personality as well. I still love to work in a beautiful space and I’m far older than your students, so I’m willing to bet they’ll be happy if you try out a few of these ideas.

The Door

Decor all starts with the door. Should we decorate it or not? Personally, I'm all for it. Here are a few simple, age-appropriate ideas.

      #1 Student photo collage – take class photos on the first day of school. Let students choose a location on campus and pose however they want (within reason). I've had entire classes climb trees, lay on the football field, sit in the bleachers, even try to make a human pyramid. Print your class photos and put them on the door. Then add more as you snap shots throughout the year when students are displaying projects, putting on performances, participating in festivals, etc.

     #2 The Coloring Book Door - I already wrote a whole post on this, so if you're interested, check out how I did mine! This is an easy and fun door with tons of potential.

      #3 The  Instagram Door - Instagram doors abound on Pinterest. But rather than doing it yourself, I suggest you have each student bring in one square photo with a caption that shows them doing something they love or visiting a place they care about. That way your Instagram door represents your whole community and not just you.

       #4: The List -  Cover your door in white paper and have students write up every book they read all year. Add yours too. Every day as students come in they will see new titles and ideas for their independent reading. Invite students to write a quick sentence about the book or draw a picture, or put stars around it if they'd highly recommend it. 

Book Displays
Another great way to decorate your room is with book displays.  They are colorful, interactive, and don’t risk being age inappropriate. You can decorate a significant part of your classroom with books on display and recommended reading posters.

I love using the Big Huge Labs "Motivational Poster" tool to make book recommendation posters. You just snap a photo of someone with their favorite book and then upload it to the poster and add your recommendation caption. These make great classroom decor, especially around your book displays. 

About Me
You know how every website has an "about me" section? Kind of like mine, right here. Why not
add one to your classroom? I had a colleague when I taught abroad in Bulgaria who created an 
amazing display of travel photos of himself around Europe. I’m sure they started so many 
conversations with his students. Consider adding a section in your classroom that shows you with 
your family, doing things you love, and traveling. Let students get to know you better. 

Postcard Collection 
I use my postcard collection to create all kinds of displays in my classroom, and also as story starters for journal writing. Build a postcard collection from your travels and ask friends and students to contribute. Soon you’ll be sharing images from all over the world with your students. Add literary quotations that relate to the images to draw them in. Travel may be a bit more broadening, but seeing a postcard collection on the wall every day is a good start to opening up your students’ horizons.

The Hall of Fame
I LOVE my student project hall of fame. It gives students the models they need to reach high. Collect best work and display it on a shelf or bulletin board, then draw students' attention there when you introduce a project with an example on display. The hall of fame makes for a colorful and inspiring display on any classroom wall. To download the banner I made for mine, just click here

I hope these ideas help you get inspired to decorate your classroom in some fun new ways this year. I'd love for you to share your classroom photos (and ideas and questions) with our community over in my Creative High School English Facebook group! Just click to join.

Finally, if you like to learn on the go and you haven't subscribed to The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast yet, you can find it on iTunes right here.  


25 Creative Project Ideas for ELA

For many students, creative projects drive the most learning. The project pulls together their interests and skills with the material, and engagement happens.

Projects make a huge difference in any curriculum.

When I look back on my experience as a student, creative projects are the highlight of every year going all the way back to 4th grade (my leaf collection!). As a teacher, I try to build them into almost every unit.

If you've been wanting to do more creative projects, but you're stuck for ways to get started, this post is for you. I'm going to share five different categories of projects to help you find inspiration. If you need a quick fix of project-based inspiration, I've created a printable checklist of thirty-two project ideas within these five categories. Print it out and put it by your computer and it'll be a LONG time before you run out of ideas! Subscribe below and I'll send it right along.

#1: Projects based on Modern Media 

My school once got rid of sophomore honors English and history.  Students could pursue the honors distinction by completing a portfolio of interdisciplinary projects instead.

Our teaching team needed to invent these projects and roll them out every couple of months. Our first was to have the students do a radio show like This American Life. They chose themes related to our curriculum, each recording an introduction, interviews, stories, and a conclusion. Then they mixed all this with music to produce a podcast. The results were phenomenal.

There are many more ways you could use podcasts.

Students in groups could create a podcast in which they interview guests who are characters from a novel.

You could have students go out and interview people in the real world about topics they care about.

You could come up with an interdisciplinary task, like creating a podcast about the school robotics team or maker space, featuring information, background and interviews that allow students to dive into STEM topics through humanities skills.

Another great way to use modern media as the basis of a project is through video creation. You could start a class Youtube channel covering modern news from the student perspective, then let students create videos every couple of months on a major recent happening. The videos should include commentary, interviews, and related storytelling.

Ask students to create two minute versions of the novel you are reading, either through cartoon animation or short acted scenes.

Participate in a collaborative project with students in another country, producing a video as a class that explores your city and its people and sharing it with your partners, then responding to theirs.

Perhaps your students would enjoy drawing up storyboards for the Netflix version of your latest novel. Or writing a television series proposal they might present to PBS. You get the idea. Once you're rolling, there are hundreds of ways students could explore material with real depth through the medium of modern media.

#2 Festival Projects

Who doesn't love it when their hard work is truly celebrated? There are many ways to create a festival-based final project.

Have students present creative free choice reading projects at a reading festival. Invite younger students who could use inspiration in their reading choices. Play music. Have food. It doesn't take much preparation to pull off an engaging festival for your students. Let them help; they'll buy in more and it'll be less work for you.

Or make the creation of the festival itself the project. Maybe you'd like to do a transcendentalism festival for a local elementary school. Have students in groups plan activities, make food, create posters, postcards, and booklets to share with the younger kids. Put a pair of students in charge of leading a nature hike and another pair in charge of contacting local news media with a press kit and follow-up materials from the festival itself. Revel in the joy success will bring your students.

Performances lend themselves well to festivals too. Perhaps your students are going to write and act mini one-act plays. Any way you could gather everyone together from all your sections on a Thursday night, inviting parents and administrators to join you? Maybe everyone in your class is going to memorize a poem, could they perform them in the school garden after watching slam poetry clips chosen by the class while your ambiance committee serves smoothies? (I love putting students in committees. They seem to love it too.)

When students have created something outstanding, a festival can simply be a way for them to showcase their work.

Say, for example, you've had your students create innovative apps designed to solve the problems of literary characters (one of my own favorite projects). Let them present the apps at a class innovation fair, similar to a science fair but with a bookish flavor. Either have students take it in turns to wander or answer questions in front of their displays, or give everyone two minutes with the smart board behind them to present their apps as videos, Prezis, Powerpoints, or powerful speeches.

Thinking about ways to give students an authentic audience and a memorable day amps up engagement so much. I find that festivals get everyone excited, every time.

#3 Interdisciplinary Projects

The world is getting more interdisciplinary all the time. If a student wants to be known for great cooking, it's a good idea for him to be able to take good photos, make videos, write blog posts and run social media if he hopes to write a cookbook someday. Entrepreneurs must be good not only at whatever they hope to build a business around but also at all things media and marketing. Athletes must manage their personal brands and communicate with the news. Historians better be ready to broadcast live for their museum's Facebook page.

Providing students with ways to mix and match what they are passionate about from multiple disciplines sets them up to be happier later on.

Let's imagine a project or two you could do with colleagues in several departments at your school.

Art: Ask an art teacher if he or she would consider hosting a gallery show in your school's display area with work from your students. Then bring the art teacher in as a guest speaker as you introduce a project to represent the nature of one character from a novel through an artistic medium. Imagine a gallery featuring short videos, paintings, drawings, photo essays, murals, and sculptures expressing the nature of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter or Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Have students write up reflective analysis papers demonstrating how their work represents their careful character analysis, and display these to accompany the art.

History: Talk to a history teacher about some of the important themes of the history curriculum in the year you teach. Choose one major theme and share it with students. Have students begin hunting for news articles, headlines, and images from modern media that connect current events and trends with this powerful theme from their history study. Get permission to create a giant collage somewhere in your school space. Have every student write a paper connecting ten things they find on the wall to the theme, and choose the best to publish and display by the collage for the whole school to read.

Math: Ask students to interview math faculty about exciting math-based careers. Then have them create a newspaper called "Why Math is Cool" to publish and share with younger kids who find math a struggle. Send them out in pairs to research the topics and create elements of the newspaper - comic strips, columns, infographics, articles, advice columns, etc.

When you do an interdisciplinary project, you not only engage your students but you understand them better as students. More interdisciplinary connections may naturally arise, and your newly strengthened relationship with your colleague in another department can only help.

#4 Inhabit a School Space

Again, this project provides that all-important piece, the authentic audience. When students know they will be creating a project that many people will see, it makes a big difference to their motivation.

Perhaps your students could exhibit final projects in the school office. Perhaps the culmination of a free choice reading unit could be the creation of a huge book display with recommendation blurbs in the library.

Maybe poetry slam winners could perform as part of a school assembly or at a parent night. Or a photography class could shoot photos of your class performance of Death of a Salesman to display in the entryway of the school.

Is there a dark ugly wall somewhere in your building waiting to be filled with a collage of great literary quotations? Or a mural featuring three important themes from great American novels?

Inhabiting a school space connects your classroom to the community and the community to your classroom.

#5 Take part in a Contest or Challenge

If authentic audience is king, competition is queen. Both have great power for motivation, like it or not. Engaging students in the writing process by taking part in a challenge or participating in a competition is an easy win.

Why not try NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) with your students this year? Can you imagine the feeling of accomplishment that would come with writing a novel as a teenager?

Or build a unit around submitting to a national essay contest (here's a list of great ones) or one in your community.

You could even start a youth writing contest in your city and make your students the judges. What a lesson in good writing it would be to create a rubric and discuss the finalists to determine what pieces are the best! Similarly, you could start a website to publish student writing and make your students the editors and the public relations managers.

I hope you've found some inspiration for your next project. To borrow a line from Pringles chips, "once you start, you can't stop!"  I'd love to hear your plans in our fabulous Facebook group, Creative High School English. See you there!


Secondary Door Decor

There's nothing like raising a pair of young children to give you perspective on the primary world.

There's a lot that primary teachers do SO WELL, and I think we could adapt some of their beautiful design and decor for our secondary classrooms. My crash courses in Montessori and Reggio Emilia, play-based learning and interactive learning spaces, have all led me to believe that there is a great deal to be said for a beautiful environment, documentation of process, artistic and interactive elements sprinkled liberally throughout anything and everything.

I look at my little ones and I ask myself, will a point come in their future when I WON'T want them to be surrounded by natural light, art, books, beauty? Will they just suddenly cease to need creative spaces?

I don't think so.

I still remember asking a teacher I shared a room with in my first year if it was OK if I decorated the walls. "Sure," he said. "I'm not really into that." He was a great teacher, a great role model for the kids. I added a few flourishes, a plant, some costumes and books. I took the old outdated textbooks off the bookshelves and hid them away somewhere.

If you're like me, you're always searching for great posters, book display ideas, bulletin board inspiration. You sometimes invent activities and projects on purpose to make great wall displays.

If you're more like my friend and colleague, you tend to focus on the content of your course, and the environment is an afterthought.

Regardless of which camp you fall in, this just might be the year for you to create a fun, interactive door with which to welcome your students. Hop on board the adult coloring book craze and make a coloring book door.

All it takes is a coloring book (which you probably already have) and forty-five minutes.

I made mine this month and it couldn't be easier. Someone even already started coloring on it though the year hasn't begun.

Here are the simple steps you can follow to make one of your own.

1. Color one or two pages in the book to set the example.
2. Open the book and press down the pages several times to flatten it as much as possible.
3. Placing your hand firmly on the left page of an open fold, tear out the right page. Continue to tear out right pages until you tear them all out.
4. Trim any egregiously ripped edges. You don't have to cut straight lines on all of them.
5. Add tape rolls to the back of a page and start in the upper corner. Tape the pages onto the door in rows, moving from left to right.
6. If your pages don't fill the whole door, stack a few sheets of colored paper and cut across one side to make a border. Tape on the border along the edge where some door is still showing.
7. Either hang a basket of colored pencils, put some on a small shelf or table nearby, or get some ready for students to use during whatever moments you choose.

See what you have by the end of the year! I can't wait to see what mine looks like in May.

Help Students Fall in Love with Reading

Last week I flew home from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. After getting up at two-thirty in the morning to get ready and get my two tiny ones into the car on the way to the airport (why do I ALWAYS choose morning flights?), I was pretty disheveled by the time we boarded our connection. 

But not so disheveled that I didn't notice there was NOT ONE PERSON READING ON OUR PLANE. Not one. Making my slow way back from the bathroom across the crowded aisle, I glanced left and right with rising incredulity. Really? Not even a grade schooler with his nose in Percy Jackson? Not even a businesswoman reading The Four Hour Workweek? No one glued to a copy of All the Light We Cannot See

Nope. Just movies, games and snacks as far as the eye could see. Not even an e-reader in sight. 

English teachers, what are we going to do? Is the era of the book over?

No way. Without books, we lose critical opportunities to understand people and situations we might never otherwise know. We miss out on the beauty of human language and its wonderful intricacies. We say goodbye to untold happy hours lost in new worlds as we curl up in tree houses, on airplanes and beaches, in waiting rooms and other rooms where we might not want to be. We lose empathy and hope, joy and richness. 

Recently in my Facebook group, Creative High School English, someone posted a major problem. In her school, teachers face the challenge of students who simply do not have to read. Their parents read the books for them and fill them in each day over breakfast. What to do? She wondered. 

Group members wrote many thoughtful responses, often highlighting the usefulness of audio in helping their students engage with a text in class before encountering its challenges at home.

I agree that audio has many benefits. I love audiobooks and podcasts. I've even started my own podcast, and it's a rare workout that doesn't feature someone's voice in my ears. 

But this question has simmered in my mind ever since. Because though I like audio very much, I haven't turned to it very often in my classroom, and for many years helping students fall in love with reading has been one of my core motivations.

For me, helping my students develop a true love of reading that will carry across multiple disciplines and throughout their lives revolves around choice reading. Each year I teach two curriculums - the designated one for my students' grade level, and a separate free choice one. Each informs the other, but I believe I most often help students fall in love with reading through the free choice program.

I hear many concerns about choice reading, as well as many success stories. It's easy to be nervous that students will only choose easy books, or that the richness of the canon will soon be lost if we turn our classrooms over to YA and dystopia. That's why it makes me so happy to offer you the option of a blended curriculum. You can have the canon AND let students read whatever they want. 

I bet you do it all the time. How many books are on your nightstand right now? I bet you're reading a novel for class, a novel for pleasure, maybe even something in the nonfiction category when you're in the right mood.

True readers want different types of books at different times, like true gourmands want variety for their palette and travelers don't just return to the same beautiful city time after time. 

So, are you with me? If you're willing to experiment with some choice reading to complement your full-class curriculum, here are five steps you can take to help your students fall in love with books. 

#1 Build a Stellar Classroom Library
You might be thinking that students have access to your school library and your community libraries already. But somehow it is wildly different to pass by attractively displayed books day in and day out than to know they are behind walls not too far away. You can shop for books at rummage sales, library sales, thrift stores (do you know some neighborhoods have Goodwill book shops? I've been to one!), Powell's, the Amazon used book section, and more. You can also reach out to parents and community members in a mini-book drive, asking them to unload their used books and let you sort through for winners. I've put together a short list of books that have been super successful in my own classrooms, if you're looking for some good titles. 

#2 Book Talks
I stumbled onto Nancie Atwell's work when I first began choice reading teaching in Bulgaria. I loved every page of it. One of her major pushes is for doing book talks for your students, and experience has taught me that she is right about this. You can put the most wonderful book in the world on display, and some readers will pick it up. But give it a sixty second pitch in which you tease the plot, explain why you liked it, and compare it to other similar books and it will rocket off your shelf. I do a lot of book talks myself, but I also invite students to do short ones when they finish books I know they loved. Since it's completely ungraded, they are often willing to say a few words about why they liked a book, especially if I help them along with some questions. 

#3 Reading Contests
To heck with "intrinsic motivation is all that matters," half the world runs on extrinsic motivation. I don't think there's anything wrong with giving my five-year-old his allowance after a stellar week of bed-making and helping clear the table, and I don't think there's anything wrong with putting up a fun prize or two in a reading contest. My tenth graders in Bulgaria once read a combined seven thousand pages in a month with nothing more on the line than a class picnic with home made dessert. No grade or assignment of any kind, just a fun contest where everyone who read a great book already won. 

#4 Reading Challenges and Games
I like to throw in a few extra challenges for my super readers. I create Bingo cards of titles or genres for them to try out and offer prizes for those who get a Bingo. Sometimes I'll offer a challenge to read a certain book over a vacation or a weekend. An easy prize is to do a book discussion of the challenge book at lunch following the challenge, and order pizza or bring donuts for everyone who completed the challenge. 

#5 In-Class Reading Time and Check-Ins
One of the most critical components of my choice reading program is to offer a consistent chance to read in class. It's usually just about thirty minutes a week - long enough for students to actually get into their book while I'm cruising around and checking in. At first I read my own book at my desk, looking up every now and then and taking note of students who look fidgety and unengaged. Then I head out for a lap, leaving the super engaged alone and trouble-shooting with the bored. I will often switch out books for students; if they are not able to read for thirty minutes in class, there is no way the book will hold their attention outside of class. We talk for a while about the most recent book or books they enjoyed, and I help them find something else in our classroom library.

More than anything else, building up my students' love of reading has been about the personal relationships I can build with them. As I get to know them and find them books they care about, they begin to love reading, or, more rarely, strengthen the love they already have for it. It's a process that gets better throughout the year as they read. 

To get the whole process started, you need a basic assignment of some kind. I use a differentiated assignment to get them started, in which they choose what grade to go for and the corresponding number of pages they will have to read per term. To show me they've read, they will turn in book reviews for each book at the end of the term. These help me see how they are enjoying their reading, and also give me some basis for grading their reading. This is always a relatively small part of the grade, but a hugely important part of the work I do with them. 

For a quick check-in along the way, you can also try "Book hashtags." Simply take five minutes to have students jot down the hashtags they would use to describe their book on Instagram, then ask them to share those hashtags with partners or small groups and explain why they fit their books. This is a super speedy way to help expose new students to great books. Sign up below and I'll e-mail it to you today!

A basic assignment, a great library, regular book talks and in-class reading times, contests and challenges, these are the components of my reading program. And what fun we have! I love to watch students progress from beach reads to literary classics, from an offhand choice of Paolo Coelho to a deep tour through all of his works, from dystopia to fantasy to modern fiction with a smile on their face. It doesn't matter to me what book they are reading, what matters is that they look forward to turning the page.
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